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The Sport and the Ad Games Have Begun

Each September the sport of football appears as certain as the sun rises each day from the East. From the smallest members of Midget Football League, to Friday nights under the lights at the local high school to college campuses all across America, the sport and business of American football pulls in millions of spectators eager to watch matches between two opposing teams on a 7,500 square yard field of well-natured grass, artificial turf or often just plain old weeds and mud. Not to be confused with that other European version of football, American football has dominated competitive sport for decades. The professional version, known as the National Football League (NFL), comprises 32 teams located in cities and metropolitan areas across America. It commands seemingly rabid attention from millions of fans, both inside massive “Parthenon like” stadiums and on millions of televisions around the globe. The NFL is where the big sport of football becomes very big business.

When the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Dallas Cowboys in the 2021 season opener this month it was the first time in nearly two years that the business of professional football opened in stadiums completely full of adoring fans. Crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, the money-making machine is primed, lubricated and fine-tuned to make a comeback. NFL viewership rights have topped $100 billion dollars, prompting many to predict significant price increases for participating marketers this year.  The 2022 Super Bowl ad rate is expected to increase to more than $6 million, up from $5.5 million last year. Total Super Bowl ad revenue is expected to surpass $545 million in revenue.

But some prognosticators are cautious of predicting a return to a time when the season-ending championship game attracted 100 million viewers after the dismal performance of Super Bowl LV. With the lowest ratings since 2007, the game attracted 9 million fewer viewers than the previous year. While many blamed the decline on the 2020 pandemic and the poor level of competition, the big public relations machine of the NFL is struggling to put together a successful message following a list of unpopular decisions regarding the handling of team member, on-field, social issue protests. With more than 70 percent of fans indicating that they would avoid viewing last year’s big game, it is unlikely that the coming seasons will garner the popularity and revenue of the increasingly distant past.

The list of advertisers lining up to pay millions of dollars for TV spots always include the advertising performers with the biggest and fattest marketing budgets, but even some of the most recognized ad-game players of the past are tempering optimism and enthusiasm for the coming season. A renewed outbreak of the Delta variant has increased the level of uncertainty that all the games this season will be able to attract viewers without restrictions. But the first game did see brands like Lowes, Celebrity Cruises, Uber Eats and NFL gambling partner FanDuel line-up and take a shot at gaining some consumer notice. With television continuing to lose ground to streaming services, the once-dominate live-viewing medium is struggling to remain relevant in the advertising arena.

The NFL marketing machine will have to pull some memorable “Hail-Marys” just to recover a portion of the 20 percent drop in ad revenue experienced last season. The league’s advertisers and sponsors will need to weather more than just a few moments of doubt concerning the value of playing the NFL ad game.